Federal runoff controls opposed Md. farmers fear they will have to bear cost of waste disposal laws

Plan to be unveiled this week

September 15, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials welcomed yesterday an impending federal crackdown on water pollution from livestock farming, saying it parallels farm-runoff controls adopted by the state earlier this year to combat Pfiesteria-related outbreaks in Chesapeake Bay.

But environmentalists and Eastern Shore chicken farmers say the federal move could do more harm than good unless it requires that poultry companies like Perdue Farms Inc. help pay for needed pollution control measures.

"I can't bear it," said Jerry Wunder, who raises 100,000 chickens for Perdue on his 27-acre farm 30 miles south of Salisbury. "It's not my manure. It's not my chicken. It's their chicken."

The Clinton administration is expected to unveil this week a strategy for protecting rivers, streams and drinking water supplies nationwide against contamination by bacteria and nutrient-rich runoff from an estimated 450,000 cattle, hog and chicken farms.

The 42-page document, drafted jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, would establish both voluntary guidelines and new government regulations for controlling the storage and disposal of farm animal wastes, including their use as fertilizer on croplands. A copy of the plan was obtained by The Sun.

Though much has been done in the past 25 years to reduce industrial wastes and clean up the nation's waters, agriculture remains a major source of degradation on at least 35,000 miles of streams. Farms have largely escaped environmental regulation, until now.

Maryland Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida welcomed the federal initiative, saying it should ease complaints from the state's poultry industry about new farm-runoff controls adopted this year by the General Assembly.

The state crackdown was proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening after scientists linked nutrients from the lower Shore's poultry industry to last year's outbreaks of the fish-killing microbe, Pfiesteria piscicida. The state law would give Maryland farmers until July 2005 to produce and carry out plans for managing their use of animal manure or sewage sludge as fertilizer on croplands.

The legislation prompted complaints from growers that they could not afford to pay any more for hauling away or disposing excess manure, and Perdue executives warned they would shift their operations out of state if regulated too tightly.

The federal plan "will level the playing field for Maryland farmers," Nishida said, since farmers in neighboring states would have to comply with requirements similar to Maryland's.

The federal agencies envision regulating only the largest 5 percent of animal feeding operations, those with 1,000 or more cows or 100,000 or more chickens. The rest would be encouraged to control pollution voluntarily through offers of technical and financial help.

Most poultry farms in Maryland have fewer than 100,000 chickens. But the federal plan does call for states to impose requirements on smaller livestock operations in sensitive watersheds where several of them together might harm water quality. Farms with as few as 300 cattle or 30,000 chickens might come under such regulations.

"In the case of Maryland's, it's going to be relatively easy to live with," said William Matuszeski, director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay office in Annapolis. However, the federal plan will impose additional costs on Virginia farmers, and to a lesser extent Pennsylvania's, since those states now require fewer pollution control measures.

"It perhaps will prevent the [poultry] companies from playing one state against another," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

But he said the federal plan would be seriously flawed if it required chicken farmers to shoulder the costs of reducing runoff pollution, since they are raising birds under contract with poultry companies.

"I just think the farmers ought not to be singled out," Baker said. "They're the ones that can least afford to pay for it."

Perdue spokesman Richard Auletta referred requests for comment on the federal plan to the National Broiler Council, the poultry industry group.

Richard Lobb, the council's spokesman, said the industry likes the federal plan's reliance on voluntary pollution controls, except for very large livestock operations and those that use lagoons to hold animal waste.

Lobb made it clear that the industry is not ready to assume responsibility for the manure generated by its chickens, as they are raised under contract on farms.

"The litter does not belong to the companies," he said. "Most of the growers consider it a resource. They use it as fertilizer and a soil amendment, particularly out on the Eastern Shore where the soil tends to be kind of thin and sandy."

But Wunder, the Eastern Shore grower, countered that his flocks produce far more manure than he can use on his fields. And he makes too little profit growing chickens for Perdue to pay for disposing the waste, he said.

"It's got to be equally applied across the nation," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Shore and has pushed for national legislation dealing with pollution from farm animal wastes.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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